Lance rewrites the script

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

LA GRANDE MOTTE, France – Lance Armstrong prides himself on being a real-time athlete, blogging, Tweeting and video-logging his way through one of sport's most anticipated comebacks.

Armstrong's participation in the Tour de France is a hands-on experience as he constantly keeps his followers updated with the minutiae of his life, from what's on his dinner plate to his current music of choice.

Yet three days into the event the 37-year-old is providing a veritable soap opera on the course itself, spinning a web of intrigue and speculation from his spoked wheels.

An official fine for turning up late for pre-stage registration because he was chatting with visiting actor Ben Stiller was far from being the most dramatic part of Armstrong's Monday.

There was always the possibility of rumblings within his Astana team after the decision to hand leadership of the squad to Spain's Alberto Contador, even with the seven-time champ at its disposal.

So it has transpired, though it hasn't taken long for it to emerge, that Armstrong is the director, producer and lead actor in this carefully woven tale that maybe, just maybe, will have a fairy-tale finish in Paris.

Monday's Stage 3 from Marseille to La Grande Motte should have been a relative snooze-fest, the latest flat crawl along the Mediterranean coast before the real drama begins next week in the mountains.

Instead, a scorching day in the south of France seared an opening into the biggest storyline of this Tour and put Armstrong into what may be considered a phantom lead.

By being part of a 27-strong late breakaway that left the peloton in its wake, cycling's biggest name moved into third overall, and, most significantly, took 40 seconds out of Contador, putting him 19 seconds ahead of his teammate on total time.

As signals of intent go, it could not have been timed or executed better, even though it relied on a smattering of good fortune.

Yellow is the color most associated with the Texan, from those LiveStrong wristbands being hawked at every curbside of the race, to the jersey he wore down the Champs d'Elysees and on to the podium all those times.

And while the maillot jaune is unlikely to be his just yet there are no serious contenders for the title ahead of him. Leader Fabian Cancellara and second-place man Tony Martin have no pretensions of actually winning the Tour, their specific time trial talents meaning they are likely to fall away at altitude.

Armstrong, if his public comments are to be believed, didn't think he could win a week ago either. Back then the commonly held view was that he would play a shepherding role for Contador, and do so willingly.

Maybe that really was the plan back then, but it sure as heck isn't now. Momentum is building behind Armstrong, boosting his own confidence and eating away at that of Contador.

The Spaniard had a face of thunder as he climbed the steps of the Astana team bus at the end of a day when his already tenuous grip on his team's leadership was loosened further.

Contador was caught out by a split in the peloton with just under 20 miles to go. The Columbia-High Road team put in a sudden spurt with the aim of reeling in a group of four riders who escaped early and had remained clear of the pack until that point.

Columbia's primary objective was setting up sprint star Mark Cavendish for a stage victory – and it worked, with Cavendish crossing the line first for the second straight day.

Yet the force of the attack also had the effect of cutting the peloton in half and providing perhaps the first decisive power shift of the race.

Armstrong was sharp enough and suitably well-positioned to be among the small group able to cling on to the Columbia bunch – Contador wasn't.

Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel now has a tough decision whether to stick with Contador as his main man or switch allegiance to Armstrong.

There are no prizes for guessing what choice the American thinks he should take. "Forty seconds is 40 seconds," said Armstrong. "This changes the dynamic going into the team time trial.

"I have stayed out of the drama and polemics of the leadership. I have won the Tour seven times and I think I deserve some credit. Alberto is a good leader but that doesn't mean you can't take advantage of situations that come up.

"It doesn't take a genius to know you have got to be there at the front when it is windy because anything can happen."

Suddenly, Armstrong looks, and speaks, like a potential champion again.

Fascinatingly, the next stage in Montpellier is a team time trial, a classification returning to the race for the first time since 2005.

Each nine-man team rides together over the 25-mile course, with their time taken from the moment the fifth rider crosses the finishing line. Teamwork, drafting formation and coordination will be of vital importance.

The strength in depth of the Astana team means it should be able to open up a gap on its rivals. But will it be Armstrong or Contador who is the ultimate beneficiary?

We'll have to wait for the next episode to find out. Lights, camera, Armstrong?

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